All posts by onellums

Life with Technology

Whether we enjoy it or not, all of us academic librarians work with technology every day — assisting patrons, providing new services, and completing the myriad tech chores that are part of working in libraryland. I’ve starting noticing some technology patterns at my workplace and have summarized them below. Please share other insights and examples.

#1 Technology functions best when it doesn’t feel like a lumbering intermediary between you and a task to be accomplished. Technology is the means of doing something, not the ends. Often when technology really works, it is due to the design. You can have the smartest underlying program in the world and it won’t matter if the user interface is terrible.

Twitter, the Flip camcorder, and google search are examples of technologies that are so intuitively easy to use that you barely feel their presence. For some people it’s a Blackberry, kindle, or ipod. A certain operating system comes to mind when I try and think of examples of technologies that seem to interfere rather than assist, but I won’t name names.

#2 There is a sweet spot of technology-related frustration people will endure before they give up. If a technology seems complicated, if it doesn’t work, fails too often, creates messes etc., people won’t believe in it, and so they won’t buy into it or start depending on it in their everyday lives.

Accessing the library online for course readings can be a real headache, for example, which is why I’m so intent on putting the library in the online classroom more seamlessly, and why I’m taking a class on instructional design right now. As I take this class, I’m noticing that if I can get away with not doing a reading because it involves an aggravating process of tracking down the full text, my impulse is to abandon it rather than raise my blood pressure.

Of course, the amount of frustration a person is willing to endure depends on the individual. There are some people who will stick with a technology just because they’re in love with a gadget or want to look cool. And then there are people who will give up with the slightest provocation, claiming they’re too old, don’t have time, are not good with computers, etc.

The other day I helped a student who was trying to print a document due for a class. It turned out that the network cable was broken on the machine she was using. She did not have a way to save the document. The first floppy disk we tried failed, at which point she stormed out of the library. I tried to catch her when the second floppy worked, but she was gone.

#3 People will persist with a technology even when it’s not working if forced, or if the fact that it’s superior is considered common knowledge. They will also persist if the technology allows them to accomplish the task faster: Speed trumps everything.

I’ve also helped students who have been wrangling with their online course management system for hours. Heck, typing a paper on a computer, printing it, and turning it in is an ordeal for many of the students I see, but they persist because they are required to for their classes.

Another example of this is cell phones: for all their patchy service & fees, nothing beats the convenience of having a phone (and that’s a low-end application of a cell phone) on you at all times.

#4 If you’ve wondered whether there’s a technology out there like the one you’re imagining, there probably is.

If I can think of an application I want, google is often two steps ahead of me. This is both comforting and a little scary. If not google, some smart tech-savvy person generally knows of a solution. At least, I never feel I am alone in my wrangling with technology — Thank goodness for online communities.

This is just a basic round-up of my thinking. Further thoughts are very welcome!

Proselytizing for twitter

Recently I find myself quite absorbed by twitter, and with the zeal of a new convert I’m now going to add to the enthusiastic clamor surrounding it. I’m sure for many readers here I’m preaching to the choir. However if, like me a month ago, you don’t fully understand what twitter is, I recommend an article called “Twittering Libraries” written by an LIS student in the Fall 2008 term.

First, I acknowledge that skepticism is natural (and not helped by the recent headlines about twitter’s phishing snafu). I too used to wonder if it was *really* worth trying to figure out yet another 2.0 buzzword. Believe me, I am not the queen of all things tech, although my youthful appearance often conceals this fact. I’m not trying to claim twitter expertise (I suppose that’s called twexpertise) by any means, but I am starting to feel as affectionate toward it as toward firefox and gmail.

As I’ve already written a few posts (here and here) about twitter and libraries on my personal blog, rather than repeat myself I’m going to report some of the more illuminating and entertaining moments I’ve had on twitter recently:

-Twitter searching. Every so often I search “library” and see what non-librarians are saying about us. A couple of days ago I tried to find mention of my institution and realized there wasn’t much buzz about us in the twitter universe. Maybe it’s time to change that?

-Expanding on that thought, which one is worse: To be distantly at risk of a twitter hack, or to have no input about your twitter identity? Take FakeRodBlago, for example, which is a comedic account of the proceedings against Rod Blagojevich, written by “The Rod.” Taken from a public relations perspective, what happens when you are not representing yourself, and your identity is at the mercy of people making fun of you?

-Bear in mind that Twitter is a fairly basic tool. To designate a subject term, use a # symbol. So for example, if you use twitter as a chat tool and include a unique identifier like ‘#butterfly322′ in your tweets, you can later go back and search for #butterfly322 to review the discussion.

-There is impressive diversity to the tweets coming out of libraryland. I’m glad to see so many of us on twitter, because it means we are in more places more of the time. In this way we can stay relevant and in the consciousness of our patrons. (Never mind staying on top of things with each other and the profession!) Check out these examples: Disobedient Librarian, Infodiva, TextALibrarian, MdLawLib, Bill Drew.

-There are an array of crazy twitter tools that I haven’t even begun to play with, and the list is growing all the time. Who knew about some of these?

-Twitter is evolving. I believe it’s still in its infancy in terms of relevance, but I keep hearing new uses for it every day. People use it for all kinds of things, from the important to the mundane — breaking news stories, personal status updates (of the type “mmm, grilled cheese sandwich” etc.), automated updates, favorite links, technology troubleshooting, marketing new products, and a lot more. There are students, tech folks, religious folks, parents, shameless self-promoters, educators, recruiters, and average joes all using twitter. So pretty much any type of person — just create an account and watch Everyone to see.

In summary, I think this tool is definitely something that academic libraries should pay attention to. Please come find me if you decide to join!

Long Lost Motivation

In the current-day liturgy of teaching, it seems that motivating students is key. Once you have students motivated, supposedly, they will easily absorb what may otherwise seem dry or mundane. So a teacher’s plan should not be to transmit the material, but to motivate the students to learn the material for themselves while acting as a guiding frame. For librarians who teach, then, the challenge is to motivate students to be interested in searching for and critically thinking about information.

I know it’s possible to be interested in searching for and critically thinking about information, because it happened to me. But that was in graduate school, after many years of appreciating libraries and learning. The question I keep returning to is, what’s the formula for librarians to motivate students in a meaningful way during a brief reference transaction, or at best a library instruction session? Particularly in context, where research is only one part of a broader assignment or class?
(And don’t mistake this as a call for credit-bearing IL courses — I agree with Steven Bell’s recent post)

One recent reference desk transaction that I consider particularly successful involved a patron writing an argumentative paper about how x causes y. She wanted to find research supporting her view. So we tracked down some research, looked at some studies, and found that x has not been conclusively shown to cause y, but there are correlations, and many sources have used these correlations to prescribe certain behaviors. This was a wonderful information literacy lesson because it demonstrated how information is generated and then interpreted, and it was directly relevant to the context of her need. It was also representative of most of the reference questions I handle, in that patrons really don’t care about the intricacies of the catalog or databases until they have a specific question. It’s only when learning search tools and finding aids is integrated into answering a question that the search for information becomes interesting. In a class, though, I find this level of customization is not always possible.

I also do want to promote student independence in information-seeking behaviors, but wouldn’t you hate it if you walked up to some computer guru, asked her to show you how to do something, & she said “I’m not going to show you how to do it, but I’ll show you how I figured it out. I read the tutorial and went to a bunch of training classes, and then I played with it a bunch.” Everyone looks for similar shortcuts all the time, but shortcuts are meaningless without context. So context is essential to library instruction — we have to make library tools relevant to a certain class, or assignments, for the lesson to work.

In conclusion (sort of), it is easier but insufficient to simply feed students the shortcuts (i.e. the finding aids) without a context. We have to come up with truly thrilling examples of how information works, but much of the time we are preoccupied with thinking about how the tools work. Obviously it will vary by discipline, but does anyone have any great examples they’d like to share here? Or perhaps there’s a forum for this type of idea-generation that I haven’t found yet?

Greenhorn mistake #1: Feeling responsible for everything

Recently I was able to put into words a nagging feeling that I was taking interactions at the reference desk too personally. The moment of clarity came when a patron nearly chewed me out because the library copier only takes coins, while printing from the computers is a separate payment system. I caught myself on the verge of apologizing profusely, realized there is a distinct difference between sympathy and mea culpa, & resorted to re-stating the facts until he accepted them and walked away to stew privately. And now I’m writing this. (Later I did nicely mention to tech support the copier/printer situation.)

Here are some other things I’ve taken responsibility for at the reference desk, but probably shouldn’t have:

-Frozen computers
-Lack of a change machine in the library
-Miscellaneous office supplies desperately needed
-General MS2007 incompatibility
-Power surges
-Corrupted files
-Buggy flash drives

Now, as my boss wisely points out, librarians do not exist to get stepped on. We are all trying to provide the best library service possible, but we are not doormats. There exists a line between being helpful and allowing ourselves to be the targets of indiscriminate blame.

But it’s so easy for me to get lost in the ephemera of students’ needs! I find myself taking up their causes for a  number of reasons:

First, I’m convinced the library is great, & I’m constantly trying to infect others with my enthusiasm. I’ll admit it: I want them to get excited about research tools and information in general, and I do think it’s possible. Hey, it happened to me. (Or will I later be referring to this as Greenhorn Mistake #564?)

Also, I’m always thinking that if I save the day and fix their computers, they’ll realize I can help with other things, such as their research. This thought makes climbing down on my hands and knees to check cables and wires and locations of USB ports SO much easier.

Lastly, and maybe this makes me a bad librarian (?) I am genuinely interested in whatever problems students bring to me, whether it be personal, absurdly vague, or blatantly impossible to fix. In general I like people, and I usually like the students at the community college where I work. I like being their advocate and helping to fix their problems. I think sometimes they come to school with an “us and them” mentality, where us=students and them=teachers & administration, and maybe this is naive but I’d like to transcend that barrier.

I recently read that the difference between a good and a great computer programmer is knowing when to write original code versus reuse someone else’s. Something similar may be true for librarians, in that the best librarians probably know precisely when they can be helpful, and when someone else would be more so. Admitting that I haven’t been doing this may be a step in the right direction…

Must Teaching and Learning Research Skills be Boring?

Olivia Nellums blogs about her first year experience as a Reference and Instruction Librarian at Camden County College in New Jersey.

Even though I’m a young librarian, I can’t remember not knowing how to use the library. I learned gradually, through a process of trial and error, and then by going to library school.

This leaves me in a curious spot as an instruction librarian: A class comes to the library to learn how to do research for a particular assignment, and basically I communicate what I’ve learned so far about how to effectively use a library. Then, unless they find me later at the reference desk, I don’t see them again. Broadly speaking, library instruction seems to be regarded as skills-based: The librarian demonstrates the skills, and the students are supposed to absorb them in that traditional way that equates their brains with sponges. The library is relevant to them only in the context of their course, and I can tell they’d like me to hurry up and get it over with so they can get back to the competing concerns of their class.

So, as many instruction librarians before me, I’ve turned to learning theories for guidance. Here’s what I’m gathering:
-I should leave students wanting to strike out independently to learn more about information and information-gathering, but without omitting essential points in my lecture.
-I should encourage students to be curious about how to solve an information problem. Also I should nurture them into reconsidering what they think they know about information.
-I should assist with the above in a patient, encouraging, and overall enthusiastic manner.

Now, before I started this job my biggest worries were that I talk too fast and might be mistaken for a student rather than a librarian. On the bright side, I’m glad to see I can set aside those trivialities. I’m also glad that the ideas above are really part of information literacy, which seems to be getting an increasing amount of attention from the academy at large.

As for other past concerns – mainly that I’m in charge of helping students learn every little thing about the library, and that it’s a personal failure if they don’t get it – maybe what I ought to be supporting is a framework of information and the basics of how to find it. So, here’s my summary of that earlier list (borrowing slightly from Ken Bain‘s What the Best College Teachers Do):
-I should promote a natural critical learning environment where students can confront beautiful and intriguing information problems, yet not make it so theoretical that they throw rotten tomatoes at me.

I’m on it.